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Birmingham: History

Steel-Making Potential Spurs Growth

The Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw tribes hunted in the Jones Valley long before the first white man set foot there. The natives found a valley teeming with game and strikingly marked with giant outcroppings of red rock. John Jones and a group of pioneers came to the area in 1815 and established the village of Jonesboro, and in 1819 Jefferson County was formed. Over the next few decades the population of the area gradually increased, and the abundant red rock was found to be high-grade iron ore. By the time of the Civil War, two ore-reducing furnaces were operating for the Confederacy. They were destroyed by Wilson's Raiders in 1865, and development of the valley was virtually halted until 1871, when the Elyton Land Company, realizing the tremendous potential of the valley rich in not only iron ore, but also coal and limestone—the essential ingredients in steel making—founded and incorporated a city to be built at the junction of two major railroads. Thus Birmingham, named for the steel-producing city in England, came into being.

With the expansion of the railroads, what had once been farms and woods became a boomtown, its population growing from 1,200 people in 1871 to 4,000 people in 1873. By 1875, however, after a cholera epidemic and other setbacks, the city's population had dropped back to 1,200 people. Birmingham expanded again in 1880 when the Pratt mining operation began making coke. Two coke furnaces went into blast that year, and by 1885, the population was 25,000 people. Birmingham was growing, and it was beginning to experience some big-city problems, such as crime and disease (particularly typhoid, dysentery, and tuberculosis). The 1890s marked the founding of Birmingham-Southern College, the Mercy Home, and St. Vincent's Hospital, but it was also a decade torn by violence stemming from dangerous mine and foundry conditions and conflicts between union organizers and mine owners.

After January 1, 1900, when the first commercial shipment of steel was made, rolling mills and other factories producing finished steel products began operating in Birmingham. Labor troubles continued in the new century, and the city was plagued with corrupt government officials, vice, and gambling. But Birmingham was growing in positive ways as well. A new model town of Corey, planned by U.S. Steel, was developed by private business, and eight suburbs were incorporated into the city, doubling its population. In October 1921, the city celebrated its fiftieth birthday with four days of festivities, including a visit by U.S. President Warren G. Harding and his wife. On a crest of prosperity that followed World War I, new apartment buildings, hotels, business facilities, and homes went up in Birmingham. During the 1920s, however, the secret white-supremacist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, gained considerable influence in the city; harassment, floggings, and unexplained violence against African Americans were unofficially tolerated by local authorities. As a one-industry town, Birmingham was devastated when the Great Depression of the 1930s reduced demand for iron and steel products; it was quickly deemed "the hardest hit city in the nation" by President Hoover's administration.

Birmingham was slow to recover from the Depression, although the federal government poured more than $350 million into the area in an attempt to stimulate the economy. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) tended to Birmingham's streets and parks, and among its projects was the restoration of the city's statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge. The statue was removed from the fairgrounds and placed atop a pedestal on Red Mountain, where it still stands today. Gradually the city began to recover, and by the time World War II was declared in Europe, Birmingham's manufacturing plants were busy preparing for an all-out war effort.

City Meets Post-War Challenges

Following World War II, the economy of Birmingham continued to flourish, and to help fill the need for economic diversification, two important institutions were brought to the city: the Medical School of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Alabama Research Institute, now called the Southern Research Institute and known worldwide for its research in industrial and medical fields. A development committee attracted more than one hundred new industries to the Birmingham area in the decade following World War II. In spite of such diversification, however, Birmingham was still hard hit by the recession in 1957, and by 1960 the city was again struggling with unemployment. Along with economic woes, Birmingham was embroiled in civil rights conflicts in the 1950s and 1960s as it sought to avoid forced integration of public transport and facilities. In 1963 civil rights advocate Martin Luther King, Jr. began leading peaceful demonstrations in Birmingham. African American children joining in the protests were arrested by the thousands, and photographs from Birmingham of demonstrators being hosed down by police and attacked by police dogs were published worldwide. State police were eventually called in to help restore order. Tensions over the proposed full-scale integration of city classrooms erupted in more violence when a bomb exploded in the basement of a church, killing four young girls who were changing into their choir robes. Birmingham and the nation were shocked by the event, which convinced the city of the need for change and signaled the end of racial violence.

In the 1970s Birmingham was once again booming, as residential areas spread south and east, millions of feet of warehouse space were constructed, new shopping malls sprang up, and the downtown area was revitalized. The 1979 election of an African American educator as mayor ushered in a new era of racial harmony.

Today's Birmingham, with nearly one million residents in the metropolitan area, is the largest city in Alabama. It has become a worldwide center for health care and boasts a large regional presence in finance, education, research, engineering, transportation and distribution. The early part of the new century saw the city as a booming technological center, with a growing number of people employed in technology jobs. Its symphony, ballet, orchestra, and outstanding schools make it a leader in the arts. And, above all, Birmingham's residents have made integration work—in employment, education, recreation, and health care.

Historical Information: Birmingham Historical Society, One Sloss Quarters, Birmingham, AL 35222; telephone (205)251-1880